I arrived a little early. The only bench outside was in the shade. It was a chilly morning, so I chose to stand in the sun in the hope of warming up.
I put my bag down, and as I looked up, the little grey haired lady stood right there, as if she'd appeared out of nowhere. "I've been here a long time" she said, looking up at me. "I applied to an old age home in Bryanston ten years ago, but I'm still here. This is a horrible area. It looks like I'm going to die here". Thick winter socks poked out of her sandals, it was clear that her dreams of Bryanston had long been put to rest, and that she'd accepted the reality of living in Berea, albeit reluctantly. After a brief exchange of words, she smiled and said: "I hope there's cake". She turned, and promptly disappeared around the corner; leaving me there, contemplating death....and cake.
One by one, old ladies started filling up the bench in the shade, lighting cigarettes and throwing glances in my direction, whispering among themselves. Getting visitors was clearly not the norm but today was Mandela Day, the one day they might be spoiled just a little.
'You should stop smoking, it will lead to an early grave' I thought, but soon realised that the grave was near either way, and perhaps smoking made life a little more bearable. It's frightening how easily we judge others without having been in their shoes.
My client arrived and we all gathered inside to listen to a short speech, and to distribute cake and food parcels. As I walked around, photographing singles and groups of people, I overheard several conversations. "I don't have any family" one said. "I've been here for twenty years" said another. I spotted socks-and-sandles lady and asked her if she enjoyed the cake. "It was dry, but it was ok" she said with a slight grin.
"They might look happy" said the matron, "but most of them have had hard lives". I didn't doubt that. Ending up in an old age home with no hope of ever leaving, is not how anyone would foresee their future, yet it's the harsh reality of the lives of the aged all over a South Africa. My hope is that our small gesture brought a little bit of joy into their lives, even if just for 67 minutes.